Devon paced nervously up and down the small corridor. The art show was starting in a few minutes and he was nervous. He was wearing black skinny jeans, a bright blue t-shirt and high tops that matched the new blue streaks in his jet-black hair.
"Dev, calm down!" Ace ordered. He was leaning up against a nearby wall grinning at his nervous friend.
"I can't. What if no one likes it?"
"Are you kidding?" Ace laughed. He had spent most of the day helping Devon hang his work. Work that covered a ten-foot length of wall. "First of all, there is no way anyone won't love this stuff. Second, all you care about it that TJ loves it." Devon had been adamant that TJ not see the entire project until it was unveiled at the show.
Devon grinned shyly. "Well, that's the most important thing, but I want everyone to love it."
"Are you sure this isn't a mistake?" Devon asked for the hundredth time. "I mean, after this, everyone will know about me and TJ--he won't be able to play mole for Kate anymore."
"Dev, we already told you, it's all good. Ever since he moved in with us, most of the jocks know something is up. Most have been ok with it. I've wired him a couple of times, but I don't think it was one of the ‘usual suspects' that went after Spin."
"So we may never know who it was."
Ace shook his head. "Especially since school is out in a few days."
"Damn. If they'd catch the guy at least Spin would stop blaming himself for not remembering anything."
"It's only been three weeks; he still could get his memory back, but there may also be nothing to remember."
"What do you mean?"
"If he was jumped from behind, he may never have seen the guy who attacked him. Then, unless he heard a voice that he could recognize there would be nothing to be gained by remembering."
Miss Crenshaw, Devon's art teacher came around the corner. "Are you all set Devon?" she asked.
Most of the students' projects were displayed in the gym, but given the size and scope of Devon's they had decided to give it a more prominent place and to treat it as the centerpiece of the evening.
Devon nodded. "Ready as I'll ever be," he said nervously.
"Ma'am, will you tell him how great this all is," Ace laughed.
"Oh, it's more than great," she said. "It's an amazing piece, Devon. With the amount of work in this and the passion, you have created a full picture of TJ. You should be very proud and TJ will be stunned by it."
Devon blushed. "Thanks."
"Ok, we've got a pretty big crowd out there. Let's bring them all to the corridor and you can discuss the piece and then we'll let everyone in."
Devon nodded. He was too nervous to say anything.
Devon, Ace and Miss Crenshaw walked out into the gymnasium.
She picked up the microphone by the door and spoke. "Everyone, can I have your attention for a moment." Most of the crowd went silent and gathered around her. "Thank you. First of all, I'd like to thank everyone for coming tonight and supporting these special artists. These days, with budget cuts and lack of funds, the arts are one of the first things to suffer. Hopefully, an event like this will show people what amazing talent we are surrounded with and show why we need to support the arts in our schools."
There was a round of applause.
"Now, there is one more piece which you haven't seen yet," she continued. "This young man, Devon McDonald," she gestured to Devon, who stood beside her, "transferred here in January. Before he arrived one of his friends showed me his work and I was blown away by the maturity and talent I saw. Where many of my students have a talent and a passion for art in a particular medium, Devon enjoys working in many--from photography, charcoals, pencils, and painting. If any of you have been to the Second Chances Ranch and Rescue and seen their new logos, those were designed by Devon.
"When he explained his concept for this project, I was concerned that the scope was something that might be beyond a high school student, but Devon's determination and drive as well as his talent have shown through and you are about to see something very special. Before we unveil the piece, I'll let Devon tell you a bit about it."
She handed the microphone to Devon while the crowd clapped politely.
"Thank you," Devon started nervously. He fixed his eyes on TJ who was at the front of the crowd with their friends. "On my first day of class, I met someone who changed my life. At first, like most of the people I meet, I wanted him to model for me, figuring I'd do a portrait or drawing. But as I started to work, I decided that I wanted to do something bigger. As we got to know each other, I realized, like many people he was multifaceted--he had many interests and sides to him. I wanted to create a complete portrait of him. We've spent months with him modeling for me and I used many different mediums to try and create a true picture of him."
Devon handed the microphone back to Miss Crenshaw.
"Thank you, Devon," she said. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, if you follow Devon into the corridor here, you can all enjoy this truly amazing piece."
Devon led the crowd through the door and around the corner to the spot where he and Ace had hung his project. He walked all the way down to the end of the hallway, while everyone else stopped to take in the whole piece.
On the wall were over fifty pictures of various sizes and mediums. There were photos, drawings and several paintings. There were photos of TJ in different sports uniforms, drawings of him studying and relaxing, there was a painting of him atop Bullet. The centerpiece was a large portrait of TJ in jeans and a polo shirt; he looked very relaxed and casual.
There was a hush as the assembled people took in the pictures.
TJ was in the front of the pack and he walked over and hugged Devon hard. "It's amazing," he whispered in Devon's ear. He pulled back and looked down at Devon, his eyes glistened with tears. "You couldn't have picked a better way to tell me you love me."
A few seconds later, Devon was surrounded by his ‘family'. Everyone praised the project and his talents.
Ace grinned at him. "See, I told you not to worry."
Family members stepped aside so others could congratulate Devon.
Kate walked up to Devon with another woman. She hugged Devon. "It's wonderful, Dev." She gestured to the woman with her. "Devon, this is Sandra Holley--she's the Features editor for the city newspaper and she wants to interview you. She has a photographer here to take some pictures of you and the exhibit."
"Really?" Devon asked.
Sandra nodded. "I was here to do a ‘puff piece' on the school art show, but this project of yours is fantastic. It's just the sort of thing that can really promote the arts in our schools. I'm struck not just by the sheer size and scope of it, but how you managed to match up the different aspects of the subject's personality and hobbies with the correct medium."
"Thank you," Devon said quietly.
"I do have one question, though."
"The centerpiece portrait...most artists would have done a formal portrait, something in a suit or a tuxedo, why did you choose a more casual pose?"
"Well, my original thought was to do the traditional formal sitting." He gestured to a smaller painting of TJ in a tuxedo. "But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted the centerpiece to truly reflect him and his personality. He cleans up nice and looks great in the formal wear, but this is who he really is. A casual teenager, a fun guy, relaxed and happy."
Sandra grinned. "And that is why you will go far in the art world. You made what some would feel is a daring decision, but it was definitely the right one."
The evening continued with Devon receiving what seemed like a never-ending stream of praise. By the time he left for the night, he was floating.
School ended for the year.
Dusty graduated, but opted not to participate in the formal graduation at the high school. CJ and Danny hosted a party for him at the compound and the following Monday he and his mother went to the courthouse to have his emancipation granted.
Since he was no longer living at home and his grandmother was visiting less frequently, Lu, his mother, decided to put her house up for sale and move into a small townhouse closer to her job.
Zak had given up his room in the house to Diego as when he stayed over he spent the night at Dusty's loft. This meant was Diego was on the second floor with the other boys.
A few days after school let out, Dusty and Zak were lying in bed.
"Hey, I got a call from Gran today," Dusty said.
"How is she?"
"She sounded a little down. Her doctor won't let her fly right now, cuz her blood pressure is too high and he's afraid of something happening to her."
"That sucks. I know how much she likes coming out to visit you," Zak said. "Hey, why don't you and I take some time this summer and fly out to see her?"
"You'd do that?"
"Sure. I love your grandmother and it would be fun to see that part of the country. Could you take the time off?"
"I'm sure CJ would let me," Dusty answered. "Especially during the summer, cuz we'll have plenty of help. If we wait till August that will give me a few months to make sure everyone is up on how we're doing things. Ace can be in charge for a week."
"Great. Why don't you call her in the morning and let her know we're coming out. We'll figure out the days and I'll have my mom book the tickets."
"Thanks, babe," Dusty said as he slid over and hugged Zak.
"I'm riding tomorrow," Spin announced to Mattie as they lay in Mattie's bed.
"Spin, you know the doctor hasn't signed off on that."
"I don't care, it's been almost a month and I can't take it anymore," Spin whined. "I'll ride Marty; he'll be more gentle than Rev and I know he won't spook. I'll even keep it to no more than a walk, but I have to."
"Ok, but why don't you ride Ash," Mattie said.
"His walk and canter are much smoother than Marty's, so there is less of a chance of your ribs getting bothered."
"Are you sure he'll let me?"
Mattie chuckled. "You've ridden him before. Besides, the only time he's cautious of you is when you are a spaz and right now you're too sore to be too much of one, so you should be fine."
Jesse and Dylan were sitting up on Jesse's bed watching a movie. Kaya lay between the two of them; their hands were on her back, their fingers intertwined. Kaya's belly was starting to swell from the puppies she was carrying. The vet had told the boys she would probably deliver within the next two to three weeks.
There was a knock at the door.
"Come in," Jesse called.
CJ and Danny walked into the room looking like they were heading to a funeral.
"Hey, guys, what's up?" Dylan asked.
CJ and Danny sat on the bed.
"We need to talk to you guys," Danny said somberly.
"You're scaring me, Danny," Jesse said.
"There's no easy way to say this, Jess. About a month ago, right before the re-opening, we received some papers. We've held off saying anything about them, because we wanted to see if there was something we could do without worrying you unnecessarily." Danny sighed. "Unfortunately, the lawyers have tried everything and they can't get this changed."
"Lawyers?" Jesse asked. "What the hell is going on?"
"Jesse, your father has filed for custody of you."
"Ralph?! He hates me, why would he want me?"
"No, not your step-father, your biological father."
"That's crazy; I don't even know my biological father. He didn't want anything to do with me or my mother."
"Well, now he does," Danny said. "And you do know him."
"You met him a few months ago. Trevor Van Edsel."
Jesse's jaw dropped. "You can't be serious. There's no way he's my father; my mother never even mentioned knowing him and I used to talk about him all the time when I was riding in Wellington."
"Well, according to the papers he filed, he says that he had a long relationship with your mother and that at her request he relinquished his parental rights," CJ explained. "He's saying that as soon as he learned of her death he started looking for you and now that he's found you he wants custody."
"Why didn't he say anything when we met?"
"Right now, it's just his word. Our lawyers found the papers your mother had him sign relinquishing his rights, but she never listed him on the birth certificate, so legally there is nothing to prove he is your father."
"Then, he can't have me."
"Jesse, we have to go to Florida next week," Danny said. "You have to have a DNA test so that we know if he is your father. If he is, then we'll have to try to work something out or we'll end up in court."
"I'm not leaving!!" Jesse shouted. "I'm not leaving Dylan or you guys or my brothers or Val or Kaya. This is my home!!"
Dylan grabbed Jesse and held him tight.
Jesse began to sob. "Why? I'm finally happy, why does he want to ruin everything?"
Danny moved so he was on the other side of Jesse and hugged him. "Jesse, we're not giving up. We lost this round, we have to go and have the DNA test run. But we're going to fight for you. You belong here; this is your family and we want you to be with us."
Jesse shook and sobbed while Dylan and Danny held him.
After a few minutes, Jesse became still and quiet while the tears still flowed.
"When do we have to go?" he asked.
"We fly down on Monday morning," Danny answered.
"I'm going, too," Dylan said.
"Dylan..." Danny started.
Dylan shook his head violently. "No. I'll talk to my parents and I'll buy a ticket if I have to, but I'm not letting Jesse go through this without me."
Danny grinned. "If you'd let me finish, I already spoke to your parents and bought you a ticket. I didn't think there was any way we could leave you behind."
Jesse smiled and hugged Danny tight. "That's why you're my dad," he said.
Diego and Brandon cantered through the woods on Domingo and Chance.
"Very good, Brandon," Diego called.
"Faster?" Brandon yelled back.
"Wait until we clear the woods," Diego replied. "There is an open field just ahead; there should be plenty of room to let them go."
Brandon saw the edge of the woods and knew where they opened up. He nudged Chance to go a little faster. The Appaloosa stayed at a canter, but slowly increased his speed. As soon as they emerged from the woods, Brandon gave Chance his head and the two flew across the field.
Diego grinned and nudged Domingo; the Andalusian poured on the speed and easily caught up to Brandon and Chance.
Diego watched the pure joy that radiated from Brandon. Though the younger boy had only been riding a few weeks, he was a natural. Diego knew it had been smart to start him on Domingo. Domingo challenged Brandon as Diego had known he would. But Brandon met every challenge and now was putting his new-found knowledge to great use with Chance.
Diego had already spoken to Dusty about Chance and Brandon. It was a foregone conclusion that the Appaloosa would be Brandon's before the summer was over.
They decided they would not say anything to Brandon until they had cleared everything with his parents.
Brandon beamed as he and Chance kept pace with Diego and Domingo. The exhilaration he felt as they galloped through the field was unlike anything he had ever experienced. As much as he loved the thrill of riding Domingo, he was Diego's horse and he always knew it. He and Chance were starting to bond and he was determined that he would convince his father to let him adopt the gelding.
"Let's head back," Diego called to Brandon. "I'll take care of Domingo at the barn and you can take Chance back to the rescue."
Brandon nodded as they slowed the horses to a trot and headed back.
When they reached the compound they found Mattie and Spin coming out of the barn leading Ash.
"Hey, guys," Mattie greeted them. "Have a good ride?"
Brandon smiled bright and nodded. "The best."
"Are you going to work Ash?" Diego asked.
"No, Spin's going a bit stir-crazy and he's desperate to ride and I thought he'd be better off on Ash since his gaits are so smooth."
"Who are you going to ride?"
"I wasn't going to," Mattie replied.
Diego slipped down from Domingo and offered the reins to Mattie. "Here, one of you take Domingo and then the other can ride Ash. That way you can take a short trail ride."
Mattie took the reins. "Are you sure? You guys just came back."
Diego nodded. "Oh, he still has a great deal of energy. I would not imagine that Spin will want to ride too long anyways."
Spin nodded. "I don't know how long I'll make it, but I need to at least get some saddle time in."
"Go ahead," Diego said. "He will be fine for either of you."
"Thanks, Diego," Mattie said as he led Domingo away followed by Spin and Ash.
Brandon looked down on Diego. "So, now we can do some more work in the arena."
Diego grinned at Brandon. "You, my friend, are going to be walking funny if you keep riding this much."
Brandon laughed. "It's worth it. I thought learning to ride would be fun, but this is more than I ever imagined."
"I am glad," Diego said. "You have been an excellent pupil and it is clear that Chance has taken to you as well. If you get along as well with the other horses, you will be a great help at the rescue."
Brandon beamed at the compliments.
"Come, my friend, let us go back to the rescue. You can do a little more work in the arena."
"Are you gonna walk?"
"As I have lent my horse to Mattie, I believe so."
Brandon nodded behind him and removed his left foot from the stirrup. "Come on."
Diego stepped up and placed his left foot in the stirrup and pulled himself up behind Brandon and the two took off towards the rescue.
When they got to the arena, Jesse and Dylan were there working with Dancer and Luka was at the fence watching.
Diego slipped off of Chance and walked over to Luka. "Hola, Luka, Como estas esta mañana?"
Luka turned and smiled. "Bien, Diego. Estoy viendo Jesse y Dylan."
"Your Spanish is very good." Diego grinned. "How is Dancer doing?"
"Dancer's doing great, but something seems to be bothering Dylan and Jesse."
"Yeah, it's like they're going through the motions," Luka explained. "I love watching the two of them, especially Jesse, because he is so natural and intuitive, but this morning, it's like he's a robot. I guess he's just having a bad day."
"Probably," Diego replied.
"How's Chance doing, Brandon?"
"Awesome." Brandon beamed. "You should see him move. We were galloping all over the trails."
Luka smiled at Brandon's enthusiasm. "Great. Nice to see that the first two residents of the rescue are doing so well."
Diego opened the arena gate and Brandon rode Chance through. He watched his pupil and talked to Luka.
"So are you going to help at the rescue, Luka?"
"I'm not sure yet," Luka answered. "I'm so busy getting Winston ready for the summer shows and training. I'd hate to volunteer and then always be unavailable. I know Steph is going to. I think she is going to work with Ace, since Devon and TJ are working together. I may tell Dusty that I can help out in a pinch or I might see if Zak and Spin need help when they start working with the ‘keepers'."
Diego laughed at the phrase. "Do you think Dancer will be a ‘keeper'?"
Luka nodded. "Oh, yes. I think that Jesse and Dylan will want him. If I didn't have Winston, I'd take him. He's awesome. He definitely has dressage and hunter/jumper training. Jesse's great to work with him, but I could see Danny with him as well."
They watched both of the new horses and their riders for a while longer.
"Well, I need to go and check on Winston," Luka said. "I want to get some practice in later today. I have a lesson with Danny tomorrow."
"How is that going?"
"Danny is a task master, but he's great. He really knows his stuff. I think I've learned more from him in the last month than I learned in a year with my last trainer," Luka gushed. "Plus, he's been there. He knows what it takes to train and win at our age. He's not some washed-up has-been or never-was."
"Zak and Spin say he is very strict."
Luka nodded. "Outside of the arena he is just the sweetest guy, but in the arena he is a completely different person. He's all business," he said. "Well, I'll see you later."
"See you later, Luka."
Luka walked off towards the main ranch.
Brandon rode up to Diego.
"Are you ready to stop?" Diego asked.
Brandon nodded. "My legs are really starting to hurt."
Diego grinned. "The pain is good though--it tells you that you are using your legs correctly. If you were not sore, you would not be using the muscles that you should be using."
"Well, if being sore is good, then I'm great," Brandon laughed as he slid off Chance. When his feet hit the ground, his legs buckled and he landed on his behind. "Oof!! Jelly legs," he laughed.
Diego grinned and hopped the fence to help Brandon up.
"Do you think you can take care of Chance by yourself?" Diego asked.
Brandon nodded. "Sure. I want to give him a bath anyways. I'll take my time and make sure he feels really good."
"Excellent. I'm sure Dusty, Dylan or Jesse will be around if you need any help. I'm going to go and see how Mattie and Spin are doing with Domingo."
"Ok, I'll see you later."
Diego walked off towards the main ranch, while Brandon led Chance out of the arena and over to the wash racks.
Danny met Diego as he was walking towards the main ranch.
"Hey, Diego, are Jesse and Dylan back there?"
Diego nodded. "They are in the arena with Dancer." He paused. "Is there something bothering them?"
"Why do you ask that?"
"Luka was watching them and he noticed that they seemed to be, umm, I think the phrase he used was ‘going through the motions'?"
"Well, there's some stuff going on right now, so they are both a little distracted. That's why I'm looking for them, I wanted to see how they were doing," Danny said. "I saw Mattie and Spin a while ago heading out on the trail. It was nice of you to let them borrow Domingo."
"I wanted them to have some fun; I thought it would be nice if they were able to go on a ride together."
"It was. I'm sure they'll have a good time."
"I was just on my way to see how they were doing."
"Well, they're probably still on the trail," Danny replied.
"Then, I'll swing by the main barn first. I need to check with Sarge about background checks on some of the volunteers," Diego said as he continued on. "I will see you later."
"See ya, Diego," Danny said as he walked towards the rescue.
Danny stopped at the fence and watched Jesse ride Dancer around the arena. He immediately knew what Diego had been talking about. He had never seen Jesse ride with such indifference. Jesse normally rode with such passion and feeling; it was like a knife in Danny's heart to see him like this.
Danny went through the gate and walked over to where Dylan was watching Jesse and the thoroughbred.
"Hey, Dyl," Danny said softly. "How's it going?"
"Hey, Danny. Not great. Look at him. I've never seen Jesse ride like this. If Dancer didn't have the training he has, he'd be really messed up by now."
"I know. We need to shake him out of this funk."
"I don't know if we can," Dylan said. "He's so scared about having to leave and live with someone he doesn't even know."
"We're not giving up on him. But, he needs to fight. Just wanting to stay may not be enough. If it comes to a custody fight, he's going to have to show the judge he belongs here with us."
"He will," Dylan answered. "But he's in shock right now, Danny. After everything that happened last summer, he was finally happy and felt settled. Knowing that this guy wants to take him away pulled the rug out from under him. He's scared. We were up most of the night."
"Is he talking about it?"
"Some, but mostly we just laid there. He didn't say a whole lot, but he doesn't have to. I know how important this family is to him--being part of any family, feeling loved and wanted. Even if this guy is his father, he abandoned him. I don't know if Jesse ever really dealt with that. It was always just him and his mother until she got married, so it wasn't like he ever had a dad. I think all this happening now is bringing up those feelings."
Danny grinned. "Are you going for your psychology degree?" he teased.
Dylan shrugged. "Spend enough time on the couch and you're bound to pick something up."
"Don't I know it," Danny nodded. "We'll just need to keep an eye on him for the next couple of days. Think you can manage that?"
Dylan smirked and nodded. "It'll be a hardship but I'll try."
Danny laughed and grabbed Dylan around the neck. "Wise ass," he grumbled as he dragged Dylan across the arena to where Jesse sat on Dancer.
"Hey, Jess. How's he doing?" Danny asked as he released Dylan.
"He's doing good," Jesse said flatly. He hopped down and handed the reins to Dylan. "Here, Dyl, why don't you give it a go, he'll probably do more for you." "Mind if I give him a try?" Danny asked Dylan.
"Go ahead." Dylan smiled handing Danny the reins.
Dylan grabbed Jesse's hand and the two stepped back as Danny hoisted himself up onto the big thoroughbred.
Danny held Dancer still for a moment. He closed his eyes and plotted out a dressage test in his mind's eye.
He gave Dancer a subtle signal and the horse began to move. Jesse and Dylan watched as Danny moved the horse through a series of high-level movements and actions.
When he had finished, Danny rode back over to Dylan and Jesse. He slid down. "Whoever decided to name this guy ‘Dancer' wasn't kidding. He's probably one of the best dressage horses I've ever ridden.
"Actually, it was Luka," Jesse said.
" If I was planning to compete again, I might just take this guy for myself."
"What about Onyx?" Dylan asked.
"Jesse's doing great with Onyx," Danny replied smiling at his foster son. "I don't want to break up that team."
Jesse turned away.
"Dylan would you mind taking him to the wash rack so I can talk to Jesse for a minute?"
"Sure," Dylan answered as he took the reins from Danny and led Dancer out of the arena.
Danny walked over to Jesse and wrapped his arms around him.
Jesse began to shake and tears fell from his eyes. "I-I-I c-can't do this," he wailed.
Danny hugged him tighter. "Yes, you can, Jess. You went through worse last summer and you were on your own. Now you're not alone, you have me and CJ and Dylan and everyone else. You have your family and we are not giving you up."
"But, what if he is my father?"
"So what if he is?" Danny answered. "If he thinks he's just gonna swoop in and steal you from us then he's got another think coming. We're gonna fight for you, Jess, with everything we've got."
"I love you guys so much," Jesse whispered. "But..."
"But, you're scared and all you can think of is losing Dylan."
Jesse looked down and nodded.
Danny slipped his fingers under Jesse's chin and raised his head up. "Jesse, that's nothing to be ashamed of. You love all of us, but Dylan is the love of your life. I'm sure he feels exactly the same way. He's gonna fight for you hardest of all."
Mattie and Spin rode down the trail.
Mattie knew that Spin was dying to open the horses up, but he was making him stay at a walk while they were in the woods.
"Matt..." Spin whined, again.
"Spin, if you fall or get jarred in the wrong way and re-injure yourself, you could spend the whole summer out of the saddle," Mattie said sternly. "Do you want that?"
Spin pouted. "Stupid question."
Mattie grinned and rolled his eyes. "You are such a baby," he laughed. "We'll be clear of the woods in a few minutes and then we can speed up in the field. You just need to be careful."
Spin nodded and grinned in anticipation. Mattie had him riding Ash, since he had ridden the stallion before. Mattie was riding Domingo as he hadn't had a chance to ride Diego's horse. He was impressed with Domingo's responsiveness. He knew that Diego had spent a great deal of time and energy training the gelding.
They had no sooner emerged from the woods then Spin cued Ash and the two took off across the field. Spin whooping and hollering the whole way.
Mattie shook his head and kicked Domingo into a fast canter.
Chasing Spin across the field, Mattie was glad he had insisted that he ride Ash. The gentle canter of the Andalusian would definitely not place the strain on his ribs that Revanche would have.
No matter how fast Spin pushed Ash, the horse's canter was still like sitting in a rocker. It would actually be less of a strain for Spin to ride Ash's canter than his trot. The trot would definitely do a job on his ribs.
Mattie and Domingo chased Spin and Ash around the field until Spin finally reined the stallion in.
Spin turned Ash so he was facing Mattie as Mattie and Domingo stopped.
Mattie inhaled deeply, his heart feeling like it would burst from his chest as he took in the sight before him.
Spin's cheeks were flushed, his green eyes sparkled with mischief, his flaming red hair was a disheveled mess and his huge smile was almost splitting his cheeks. This was the boy that Mattie loved more than life itself in all his glory, the boy that some hateful thug had tried to take from him.
Spin's smile faltered as he saw tears glistening in Mattie's eyes. He walked Ash beside Domingo.
"Matt, what's wrong?" he asked as he reached for Mattie's hand.
Mattie turned and his eyes met Spin's. Almost inaudibly, he said, "I almost lost you."
Spin held Mattie's hand against his chest. "But you didn't," he whispered. "And in Spain I didn't lose you. We have each other and we always will," he said solemnly as he leaned in and kissed Mattie gently on the lips.
The boys rode back to the ranch slowly, hand in hand.
Diego walked into office in the main barn.
He had hoped to find Sarge so they could review the background checks on his new group of volunteers, but the office was empty.
He went to the desk and grabbed a piece of paper planning to leave a note.
"Help!!" he heard someone call. He turned and saw Luka standing in the doorway. "Diego!! Thank God!! It's Winston, something's wrong!!"
Luka turned to run back into the barn and Diego followed.
Luka was standing in the doorway to Winston's stall; Diego looked past him and saw the gelding lying on the floor of the stall. He was breathing heavily and appeared to be in a great deal of pain.
"How long as he been down?" Diego asked brushing past Luka and approaching the horse.
"I don't know," Luka answered. "I was here about an hour ago and he seemed fine. Then I ran to the tack shop to get some feed. I got back a few minutes ago and I found him like this."
Diego knelt next to Winston. "Shhh, good boy," he murmured as he ran his hand along the horse's sweat-slicked neck. The horse tried to get to his feet, but kept failing and lying back down.
Diego laid his head on Winston's stomach. He listened for a moment, then bolted up and looked at Luka.
"Luka, go back to office and call the Vet--the number is in the rolodex on the desk," he ordered. Luka didn't move. "Luka!! Go now!!" Diego yelled. Luka turned and ran down the hallway.
Diego pulled his cell phone from his pocket and hit a number on the speed dial.
"CJ? You need to come to the main barn, right away. I am here with Luka. Winston is down, I am almost certain he is collicking. I sent him to call the vet, but you may want to call him yourself to make sure he comes. No, I do not think there is time. I think it is too late. I know. Please get here quickly." He disconnected the call and put the phone back into his pocket. He knelt back down and continued to stroke the horse's neck.
Luka came back into the stall. "I called Dr. Grimes, he's on his way," Luka said. "Do you know what's wrong?" he asked.
Diego looked up at Luka. The look in Luka's eyes told him that Luka knew what was happening. Diego stood up and went to Luka. He took Luka by the shoulders and steered him out of the stall.
"Luka, I am almost certain that Winston is collicking," he said gently. "I called CJ and he is on his way, but I am not sure there is anything we can do."
"NO!!" Luka cried. "He can't..." His voice trailed off as he began to sob. He lurched forward and latched tightly onto Diego.
"Diego?" CJ called as he came around the corner.
Diego looked up to see CJ, Sarge and Ace coming towards him.
CJ and Sarge walked into the stall to check on Winston, while Ace stood outside with Luka and Diego.
"Luka," Ace said gently. "I called Steph, she's on her way."
Luka was lost in his grief. He sobbed in Diego's arms.
After a few minutes, Dr. Grimes came breezing into the barn and marched past the three boys.
Diego and Ace quietly steered the distraught Luka down the hallway and away from the stall.
Eventually, CJ and Sarge came out of the stall. Ace and Diego looked at them hopefully, and CJ shook his head grimly.
CJ placed his hand on Luka's shoulder.
"Luka," he said gently. "Luka, it's colic."
Luka looked up at CJ his cheeks streaked with tears. "But, he's going to be alright," he said without much conviction.
CJ pulled Luka to him. "No, Luka. Dr. Grimes is giving him something for the pain, but he's positive that Winston's intestine has ruptured. He has no choice, Winston is suffering terribly right now."
Luka nodded to CJ and then turned and ran from the barn.
"I will go after him," Diego said as he hurried after Luka.
CJ pulled out his phone.
"Who are you calling?" Ace asked.
"Luka's father," CJ replied. "Dr. Grimes needs permission and Luka is a minor so technically Mr. Andros has to give his consent."
"Consent for what?"
Ace and CJ turned to find Stephanie standing behind them.
"Steph, it's bad," Ace said. "Winston collicked and Dr. Grimes is sure that his intestine has ruptured. He's in a lot of pain and there's nothing they can do...except."
"He ran out of the barn after CJ told him. Diego went after him."
Stephanie turned to CJ. "The doctor's sure?" she asked.
CJ nodded. "Honestly, I think Diego and Luka knew before Dr. Grimes got here. There's no way anyone with any horse experience could see him and not know or at least suspect."
"We'll probably never know," CJ said. "Colic is so common in horses and it can be caused by any number of things."
"I know," Steph sighed. "We all know it's a possibility, but it's always easier to have something to ‘blame'."
"I need to call your dad and get his permission for Dr. Grimes to proceed. Winston is suffering too much."
Stephanie nodded. "Go ahead. I know it will be hard on Luka, but he wouldn't want Winston to suffer anymore."
CJ walked away to make the call.
Diego chased after Luka. Luka was surprisingly fast, but Diego was taller and in better shape so he caught up to him right at the edge of the woods.
Diego reached out and grabbed Luka's arm. "Luka, stop," Diego called.
Luka tried to pull away but Diego held on and pulled the smaller boy to him.
Diego hugged Luka tight as he fought to break free.
"Diego, let me go!!"
"No, Luka. I know what this is like and I will not let you go through this alone."
"You don't know!! How can you he's my..."
Luka stopped struggling and slumped in Diego's arms. "Yes," he whispered.
Diego held Luka and walked him over to a clump of trees. He gently set him down and sat beside him.
"I do know what you are going through, Luka. When I was six years old, my father gave me a horse I named Rafi. He was my playmate, my best friend, most days he was all I had. When I was twelve, I came out to the barn and found him as we found Winston today. He too had collicked and there was nothing the veterinarian could do for him. I was heartbroken as you are now and I swore I would never have another horse. I didn't think I could go through the pain again and I felt like I would betray Rafi if I ‘replaced' him. About a year after I lost him, we moved to the rancho. I hadn't been near a horse in that whole time and I was determined that I would not. One night as I was exploring the grounds, I came across a young gelding who had managed to get his foot wrapped in some wire that had been left in the paddock. I spent over an hour freeing him from the wire and tending to the cuts on his leg. For days, every time I would pass the paddock he would follow me. Eventually, one of the old ranch hands saw me trying to avoid the gelding. He laughed telling me that everyone wanted to ride this young horse, but he avoided everyone, except me, the one person who did not want anything to do with him.
"A few nights later, I couldn't sleep, the conflict between my heart and my head was keeping me awake. I got up and went out the paddock and found the young horse alone. I climbed the fence and went to him. He came right to me and I couldn't resist. I led him through the gate and threw myself onto his back. He took off and we rode off into the hills around the rancho. It was after daybreak when we came back. We had ridden most of the night and by the time I brought him back to his paddock, I knew Domingo was mine."
"I can't even think of replacing Winston," Luka said.
"Nor should you at this moment," Diego replied gently. "You need to mourn and reflect on the time you had with him, but whatever you do don't shut yourself down, don't deny yourself the chance to be happy. If you let this stop you from riding or being around horses, then everything you learned from Winston is for nothing."
Luka laid back against the tree and shut his eyes. A few tears leaked out from the corners of his eyes.
After a few minutes, he opened his eyes and sat up. His red-rimmed eyes met Diego's bright green ones. Diego reached out and caressed Luka's cheek and he used his thumb to wipe a tear from Luka's cheek
The sympathy and compassion radiated off Diego in a way that Luka had never felt from anyone before. Before he could stop himself, Diego leaned in and pressed his lips to Luka's. Luka responded by parting his lips and allowing Diego's tongue entry. For several seconds, the two boys were carried away on a wave of bliss, sharing feeling that neither had ever had a chance to explore.
Without warning, Luka stopped and pulled away. Diego saw the look of panic in his eyes as the smaller boy jumped up and ran into the woods.